tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 073

Three Square Meals Ch. 073

byTefler©

Matriarch Tsarra Perfaren nibbled apprehensively on her thumbnail as she stared at the holo-map projection of House Perfaren territory. Biting her nails was an unfortunate new nervous habit she'd acquired, but considering the stress she was under, such weakness was understandable. She had bags under her eyes from lack of sleep, and her exhausted dark green orbs flickered over the holographic images, darting from one enemy fleet insignia to another. Large fleets from Houses Valaden, Loraleth, Aeberos, and Naestina, still held position along her border, poised to strike at any moment into House Perfaren Space.

"It's been nearly two weeks! Why don't they get this over with?!" she finally blurted out, as she whirled on her Fleet Commander. "You're supposed to be my most senior military advisor, give me some useful advice!"

Aadya flinched at her matriarch's desperate plea, but she shook her head as she replied regretfully, "I've no idea, Matriarch. Delaying their assault makes no sense at all." She let out a weary sigh, equally as fatigued as Tsarra, and pointed at the territory map as she continued, "Any two of those fleets would be a match for our own forces, but we don't stand a chance against all four. Even the most amateurish Fleet Commander could simply attack with all their forces, and we'd be powerless to repel them from our borders. With our fleets destroyed, they could annex all our worlds at will."

"Maybe their alliance isn't as strong as I feared!" Tsarra exclaimed, clutching at straws. "Perhaps they don't trust each other to attack, as they fear betrayal from the other Houses?"

"I'm afraid our sensor probes don't support that conclusion, Matriarch," Aadya replied, reluctant to quash Tsarra's wildly optimistic theory. She pointed to the crossed-blades insignia of the House Valaden fleet, and added, "We've seen supply ships from House Loraleth docking with the Valaden fleet, as well as personnel shuttles travelling between those forces. That kind of inter-fleet co-operation makes me believe Loraleth and Valaden are firm allies, and we already know that Aeberos and Naestina have been in league with each other for years."

"This is agonising!" Tsarra gasped, slumping in her chair. "Are they just trying to drive me mad with worry?!"

Aadya studied her youthful matriarch for a moment, and asked quietly, "Have you attempted to make contact with any of the Matriarchs? Perhaps we could try and broker some kind of treaty?"

Tsarra grimaced as she snapped, "Of course I've tried, do you take me for an imbecile?!"

"I'm sorry, Matriarch, I meant no offence," Aadya quickly apologised.

The young House Perfaren Matriarch took a deep, shuddering breath, then gave the other woman a sad apologetic smile, and said, "Please forgive me, Aadya, I didn't mean to snap at you." Her haunted eyes flicked to the map again, and she added, "I've tried making contact with all of them, but they're refusing to take my calls."

***

It was deathly silent in the Invictus' Galley as they stared at the slowly-rotating technical schematics, the intricate blueprints illuminated by an eerie violet glow, cast from Irillith's eyes.

"That's the Progenitor's ship..." John finally managed to mutter, as he stared in astonishment at the technical readouts of the huge vessel.

There was no mistaking the sinister-looking profile of the vessel, which they'd only seen in brief glimpses up until this point. The ship was tall in the stern while relatively narrow across the beam, and the long, angular superstructure swept forward, until it split about one-fifth of the way to the aft. From there, the lower section formed the sharp point of the prow, with the upper section set back slightly.

"It's over two kilometres long," Dana said in a hushed voice, her eyes wide in awe.

Rachel turned to look at her, and asked, "How do you know that?"

"All those weird symbols... they're Progenitor runes," John replied for her, and Dana nodded her agreement.

"What about gun batteries?!" Calara asked urgently. "Have you got blueprints for the Progenitor's weapons?"

Dana shook her head, and replied, "No, but we can see all the weapon hardpoints. That fucker's armed to the teeth!"

"How about the engines, or manoeuvring thrusters?" Jade asked, glancing warily at the ferocious-looking vessel that loomed above them. "Can you tell anything about its flight capabilities?"

Dana's sky-blue eyes darted over the holograph studying it in detail, as she replied, "The Tachyon Drive, Power Cores, Power relays - I can see where everything should be, but all the juicy details are missing..." She paused a moment, then pointed at the lower levels near the rear of the ship, "Holy fuck! That's the Drive Room for the Wormhole Generator!"

"You were right," Alyssa said, glancing at the redhead. "The Progenitor is definitely opening wormholes to get around!"

Having already memorised the schematic, Dana glanced at Irillith with concern, and reluctantly let go of her hand. Just like that, the schematics for the Progenitor ship winked out in a violet flash, and Irillith blinked slowly, as she massaged her temples.

"I'm really sorry about that," Dana apologised to the Maliri girl, remembering how that kind of projection had left her with a pounding headache. She gave her a worried frown, and asked sympathetically, "Are you alright?"

Irillith looked pleasantly surprised as she smiled back at the redhead, and replied, "My eyes tingle a bit, but there wasn't any pain!"

John was greatly relieved to see she hadn't been hurt like last time, and said, "Athena said you weren't ready before, but you've definitely grown more powerful since then. I guess this confirms it."

Rachel had been staring at Irillith thoughtfully, and she laughed then, shaking her head in amusement. They all turned to look at her, wondering what she'd found so funny.

"What is it?" Dana asked, turning to look at her lover curiously.

The brunette smiled at her, and replied, "Do you remember how stressed-out you were about Irillith coming aboard? You thought she was going to steal all our tech. It's no wonder John's Progenitor-side couldn't care less, though, he had far more advanced schematics locked away in his mind already. It must all be there in John's mind - everything a new Progenitor needs, to get himself started on a life of galactic conquest."

"So if he keeps loading me up, we'll get the whole lot?" Dana asked, with an acquisitive gleam in her eyes. "All the badass tech the Progenitor has?"

Alyssa shook her head, then darted a quick glance at John, and replied, "Your Progenitor side..."

John nodded glumly, and said, "He must be stopping me from unlocking everything. I'm going to have to confront him to claim the rest of it."

Sakura shook her head, and looking thoughtful she said, "Not necessarily. I was able to help you harness psychic speed, which was an ability your Progenitor-side used. Perhaps if you're given just the right encouragement, you'll be able to reveal more technology?"

Rachel's face brightened, as she said, "I think you're right! John's prepared Dana as a proxy for all these schematics, and when we've actually seen Progenitor hardware, it's been the catalyst for her to discover something new."

Dana grinned as she said, "Yeah, that's true! We got the Progenitor Power Core and Tachyon Drive from the Ashanath's ripped-off versions, and then looking at the crashed Progenitor ship gave us the schematics for the whole thing."

"We need to pay a visit to the Ashanath, see what else they might have found," John said, nodding his agreement.

"Don't forget the crashed ship on Arcadia!" Calara said enthusiastically. "If it's still there, that could be a real treasure trove of tech upgrades!"

Alyssa looked at John then, and asked, "So does this change our plans? Do you want to bother refitting the Invictus if we can just build a copy of the Progenitor's ship?"

He thought about it for a moment, then asked Dana, "How long would it take to construct our own version?"

"Several months, but I'm not sure it's worth it. At least, not yet," she replied with a sigh. "We'd have to fit it out with all our own tech for power couplings, Terran shield emitters, all that kind of stuff. Until we can acquire all the upgrades to properly equip the ship, it wouldn't be as powerful as the one the Progenitor is using. We'd get creamed trying to go toe-to-toe with him."

Alyssa looked apprehensively at the redhead sitting beside her, as she asked, "It's bad enough trying to plate the Invictus in Crystal Alyssium, let alone something that huge!" She paused for a second, then added with a frown, "Have we even got the materials to build something that big?"

Dana shook her head as she replied, "No, we don't have enough Onyxium for that, and it's not an element I can manufacture. It's a really good point though: If we do think about constructing a completely new ship, we should definitely use Crystal Alyssium for the superstructure, and not just the armour plating. At the moment, the Invictus is like an egg; tough on the outside, squishy on the inside."

"We'll stick with the current plan," John said, after considering their options. "Upgrade the Invictus, then try and secure some more tech schematics. There's no guarantee we'll even find anything we need with the Ashanath, and for all we know, they only found the Tachyon Drive and Power Core. As for Arcadia, it's deep in Kirrix Space, so it makes sense to upgrade the Invictus before we try and reach it."

"Sounds sensible to me," Alyssa said, nodding her agreement.

John looked around the table, and saw similar gestures of approval from the rest of the girls, agreeing with the path he'd chosen. "Alright, let's clean up after dinner, then go and get ready. We'll be arriving at Genthalas soon," he said, smiling at the thought of being reunited with Edraele.

***

"We're just crossing the border between House Ghilwen and House Loraleth territory, Matriarch," the image of Fleet Commander Nymaleth said, her voice pleasant and respectful.

"That's excellent to hear, thank you Nymaleth," Matriarch Leena Ghilwen replied, delighted by the startling change in demeanour in her most senior officer.

Nymaleth smiled at her, and with a far-away look in her blue eyes, she replied wistfully, "I should be thanking you for your wonderful gift, Matriarch. Meeting John Blake was the greatest experience of my life, I've never met anyone quite so amazing..." She paused, then looked abashed as she continued, "I'm so sorry for the way I behaved towards you before; to question your orders was unconscionable."

Leena smiled at her, and said, "Don't worry about that, it's all in the past now."

"Edraele has been explaining your plans to me, and I want you to know that you have my absolute loyalty, I swear it," Nymaleth said, her voice fierce in its sincerity.

Leena paused for a moment, shocked by her Fleet Commander's earnest reply. She gave the older woman a grateful smile, and said, "Thank you, that's wonderful to hear."

Edraele stepped into view beside the young House Ghilwen Matriarch, and said in a kind voice, "We would've liked to explain our objectives to you in person, but I hope you understand that we had to move quickly to apply pressure on the Ghilwen border with House Holaris."

Nymaleth's eyes went wide, and she gasped as she saw the House Valaden Matriarch for the first time. "You're so beautiful!" she finally managed to murmur, entranced by Edraele's flowing white hair.

"Thank you, that's very kind of you to say, Nymaleth," Edraele replied, inclining her head politely. She studied her for a couple of seconds before she added, "Your new colouring is very becoming, too."

Nymaleth blushed a dark-blue, and her hand reached up to her short snowy-white hair. "I'm planning to grow it out, just as you suggested, Matriarch," she replied, now quite comfortable with an idea she had previously thought to be utterly scandalous.

"You'll look stunning, and John will love it," Edraele said, with an indulgent smile.

The Ghilwen Fleet Commander let out a happy sigh, then bowed her head respectfully to Leena, as she said, "I'll inform you when we safely deliver the Terran females to Genkiri Station, Matriarch."

Leena smiled at her in acknowledgement, then replied, "I look forward to speaking to you again. Have a safe journey, Nymaleth." With that, she closed the comm channel and sank back in her chair, looking up at Edraele in amazement. Her voice belied her shock as she said, "She seems like a completely different person! All the distrust and suspicion towards me, it's like they've been wiped away..."

The House Valaden Matriach sank gracefully to her knees beside the stunned young woman, and gave her a warm smile as she said, "This is why our plans are so important. Can you see now, why we must do everything we can to support John?"

Nodding and looking at her wide-eyed, Leena replied, "You're so wise, Edraele. I believed you before, but to see it for myself was astonishing." She flushed as she added, "I can't wait to meet him."

Edraele smiled at her fondly, and then pulled her in for a hug as she said, "You're such a good girl, he's going to adore you. I'll arrange for you to meet him tomorrow."

Leena let out a happy sigh, and hugged her friend tightly, her heart filled with gratitude.

***

There was a purple flash in the Medical Bay and Faye blinked into existence, then called out, "Tashana, it's only me. Are you awake?"

"Yes, what is it?" Tashana replied testily, from where she lay on the hospital bed in the farthest corner of the room. She sat upright and pulled on her mask, narrowing her eyes as she glared at the irritating purple construct. Despite being scared, she'd been trying to get some rest while she could, knowing that soon she'd have to be sharp and alert, if she was going to be able to convince Edraele of the terrible danger they were facing.

The insipid AI put on one of those big smiles, no doubt designed to lull the unwary into a false sense of security, and said chirpily, "We'll be arriving at Genthalas Station in ten minutes! I just wanted to let you know, as we'll all be disembarking then."

"Alright," Tashana replied, feeling a shiver of fear run up her spine. "What does that mean for me?"

"If you leave too, you can see your mother again if you like, she'll be there on Genthalas. After that, you can get a shuttle down to Valaden if you want to return home," Faye suggested, her kind smile no doubt masking some insidious plot.

Tashana knew she'd have to act fast to try and get to her mother before the Progenitor could enthrall her, just like he'd turned Irillith into a slave. She rose to her feet, and said curtly, "Alright, show me to the airlock, I'm eager to see my mother the moment we land."

The AI looked delighted, and replied, "Of course! I'd be happy to help. If you just follow me, I'll lead you down there."

The door to the Medical Bay opened, and the purple sprite pranced over there, with her ridiculous wings vibrating all the while. Tashana grimaced at the saccharine sweetness of the AI's beaming grin as she beckoned her over, and reluctantly walked across the Medical Bay to follow after her. When she reached the corridor, she poked her head out and checked both ways, then prowled after the fluttering construct.

There was no sight of the Progenitor and his thralls, but she was in the lair of the beast, and knew they were all lurking around nearby. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle with goosebumps as she walked warily after the AI's holographic image. All her senses felt on high alert, and her pointed ears listened intently for the slightest sound as she walked down the corridor. When she reached the end, there were two glowing fields, one red, one blue, and when she edged closer and glanced downwards, saw that there was at least a ten-metre drop to the bottom of the shaft.

"It's an anti-gravity field," the AI explained, her wide smile no doubt meant to be reassuring. "Just step into the red side, and you'll float harmlessly to the bottom."

Tashana balked at the thought of trusting her, but then she heard the sounds of cheerful laughter drifting down from the upper levels. Her pupils flared, and she realised how close to danger she actually was. Terror of the Progenitor overcame her fear of the lift shaft, and she stumbled into the red glow, bracing herself for a terminal fall. Surprisingly, the AI had been telling the truth, and she was cushioned by the anti-gravity field, and gently lowered to the lowest level.

Faye was waiting for her outside the grav-tube in the corridor beyond, and said, "The airlock's just this way. We'll be docking shortly."

She nodded and made a shooing motion at the AI, which skipped away down the corridor towards what was obviously an airlock at the end. There was a window beside the airlock door, and she could see the golden spires and crystal domes of Genthalas as the ship made its final approach. The lush greens and vibrant blues of her homeworld, Valaden, provided a spectacular backdrop to the glorious Maliri architecture of the huge space station, and her heart ached at the beautiful sight.

Tashana stumbled towards the door, feeling a riotous swirl of emotions. There was a fierce yearning to see her home once again, but it was mixed with trepidation about being reunited with her cruel, heartless mother. She despised Edraele for believing Irillith's lies and having her banished, but she was her only hope of repelling the Progenitor before it was too late. As much as she was thrilled about being back in Maliri Space once again, she felt a deep-seated horror at the thought of a Progenitor so close to her homeworld. The damage he could do when unleashed on the unsuspecting populace below...

"Are you happy about coming home?" Faye asked quietly, from where she stood just beside her.

Jumping out of her skin at the unexpected sound of the AI's voice, Tashana turned to stare at her, trying to recall what she'd just asked: "Are you happy?" She managed to choke back near hysterical laughter, and just nodded to shut the sprite up. Sadly her plan failed.

The AI grinned at her in delight, and said, "That's all everybody wants! We just want to try and make sure you're okay. John will be delighted to hear you're happy to be home."

Tashana turned back towards the airlock, knowing that those last few minutes were going to drag interminably. John... it was such an innocuous sounding name, not like Mael'nerak, which literally meant 'evil enslaver' in ancient Maliri. Perhaps the Progenitors had grown more subtle since Mael'nerak's time, and decided not to announce their nature with their very name.

"Yeah, I'm practically jumping for joy," she muttered sarcastically to the purple construct.

Faye's programming was oblivious to Tashana's sarcasm, so she clapped with glee, and exclaimed, "I'm so glad! John and the others will be here in a minute, they'd love to speak with you!"

Tashana's heart started pounding harder in her chest, and she shivered with fear. She turned back towards the grav-tube and heard the sound of animated chatter coming from the upper levels. The ominous sound of the mindless thralls laughing happily reached her sharp ears, and she quailed at the thought of being exposed to them again. Whirling around to look through the airlock window, she saw the telltale sight of golden arches, which meant they'd already landed in one of Genthalas' docking bays. She blinked in surprise, having not even felt a tremor when they'd touched down, but forced herself to shrug it off.

"Open the airlock!" she said sharply to the AI.

"But the others will be here in a minute," Faye protested, giving her a cautious and optimistic smile.

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